Half the fun in traveling to Italy is enjoying the food. There are some basic things you should know about restaurants before heading out for a meal. Here are our Top Ten Tips for Eating at Restaurants in Rome:
- Finding a good restaurant. Katie Parla and Elizabeth Minchelli have fantastic apps that are kept up-to-date with the best places to eat.If you’re lucky you will have friends and co-workers have just returned from Italy willing to share their finds. Guide book are hit-and-miss when it comes to restaurant recommendations. Ask a local where they eat. I love to share my favorite places to eat with our guests. It gives me great pleasure to have them exclaim, “Dinner last night was AMAZING!”
- Adapt to the Italian timetable. Generally restaurants are open for lunch from about 12n-3p and dinner does not begin until at least 7p. The quicker you adapt to this schedule the better you will eat. The Italians don’t eat until 9p. The earlier you eat the less crowded the restaurants will be and the more likely you will be dining with other tourists.
- Avoid eating on the main squares. The better (and cheaper) restaurants are on small streets tucked away from crowds. If you’re enjoying the atmosphere at one of the big piazzas enjoy a drink – not a meal – on the square. Sure, you’ll pay more for the drink at Piazza Navona than you would at the bar on a side street but the view of the fountains is charming.
- Avoid restaurants that have waiters aggressively trying to get people in the door. The good places to eat don’t need waiters herding clients to tables. Same thing goes for establishments that have staff handing out flyers. Restaurants display menus on outside tables or in the window. It’s fine if the waiter points out the restaurant’s specialty while you peruse the items and prices, but walk away if he starts the hard sell.
- The waitstaff is not as attentive as it is at home. Waiters can explain how a dish is prepared, rattle off specials, pair a wine with a meal and probably even tell you where the ingredients came from – but don’t expect him to get chatty. He will not come over multiple times to check on the table but he will be willing to assist if needed. After a trip to the United States my Italian friend was overwhelmed by the talkativeness of the waiters. She quipped, “They spent so much time asking how everything was I felt like I should have asked him to join us!”
- All those courses. The Italian menu divides items by course, but there is no obligation to eat every course on the menu. Order what you’re hungry for. Italians usually order a course, eat it and then order the next course. Having a hard time finding pasta Alfredo, spaghetti & meatballs or veal parmigiana? Those may be available at your local Italian restaurant at home but they aren’t authentic Italian. Most people find that Italian food in Italy is much lighter than they are accustomed to eating.
- “I can’t find any vegetables.” This statement always confuses me because the Italian diet is rich in produce. Most restaurants have a printed menu that is used year round. But Italians eat by season to enjoy the freshest food. Ask if there are any specials if the staff doesn’t offer them. Menus often only list “vegetable of the day” and a simple side salad under “Contorni” (vegetables) but numerous items are available depending on the season. For a list of when produce is at its freshest take a look at Parlafood.com.
- Price listed as “per etto.” Often fish and meat are priced by weight. Each etto is 100 grams. For example sea bass may be listed at 7 euro per etto. If the fish weighs 5 etti, the price will be 35 euro. It’s important to note this so there are no surprises on the bill.
- Getting the bill. Eating is a slow, drawn out process in Italy. There is no rush to get through the meal. You will probably need to ask for the bill as it is considered rude to drop the check immediately. Even after requested it could easily take 10-15 minutes for the check to arrive.
- Tipping. When in Rome do as the Romans do. Waiters are paid a livable wage and are not counting on tips to survive. Romans leave a euro for two per person for a meal. However if the bill has a service charge (“servizio”) don’t leave anything. Tips must be left in cash. There is no option to add a tip to a credit card charge.
Bonus Item: Food allergies or diet restrictions. Communicate special needs to the waiter. Food is made fresh so customizing a dish should not be a problem. Voglia di Pizza near Campo dei’Fiori and La Soffitta Renovatio near the Vatican have extensive gluten free menu including pizza, pasta, and desserts. Vegans should check out The Rome Digest’s tips on eating in Rome.
A couple of untruths we keep hearing that need to be cleared up:
“I’ve heard I can make a reservation at 8p and show up at any time because the table is mine for the night.” I don’t know who started this rumor, but it is wrong. If you reservation is at 8p, be there by 8:15p or risk the table being given away.
“The restaurant turned us away because we are Americans.” Restaurants are in the business of selling food at their tables. It is not in their best interest to refuse customers. The empty tables the staff are “refusing” to seat people at are reserved for later in the evening. If it is 7:45p is not considered enough time to seat someone before a 9p reservation. It has nothing to do with stereotyping. In fact, most the locals cannot distinguish an English accent from an Australian or American accent.